Westport’s Private Benjamin

Westport has long been proud of World War II veterans like Leonard Everett Fisher and Joe Schachter, and the late Ted Diamond and Howard Munce.

We honor them on Memorial Day. We listen to and read recollections of their service. We thank them often (though probably not enough).

We’ve done none of that for Ben Pepper.

He was a paratrooper. He earned a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge. He’s lived in Westport since 1958.

Yet we’ve never seen him on Memorial Day. Most of us have never heard his name.

That’s his decision. He has chosen never to march or ride in the May parade. He still has his medals, his dog tag, his photos — and his Army jacket — but he has always been low-key about them.

Ben Pepper, yesterday. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Perhaps this Memorial Day — less than 2 months before his 100th birthday — that will change.

Westport would be honored to honor him. He lives in his longtime home — alone, after his wife Frances died — and has nearly a century of stories to tell.

Yesterday — sitting in his son David and daughter-in-law Gail’s Wilton Road house — he told some of them.

Pepper’s parents came from Austria-Hungary. His father had a window cleaning route.

Pepper was born on July 5, 1923 in the Bronx. He grew up near the Grand Concourse.

Ben Pepper, on his bar mitzvah day.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he headed to aeronautical school at La Guardia Airport.

But World War II was underway. He was soon drafted, and ordered to report to Grand Central Terminal on New Year’s Day, 1943.

(His younger brother Armand enlisted — without his parents’ permission. His mother brought him home. When he was old enough he joined the Army Air Forces, and served in the South Pacific. He is 97, and lives in Naples, Florida.)

Pepper was sent first to Fort Dix, then to a new tank training center at Camp Hood in Texas. He felt unsuited to tank operations, and asked for a transfer.

He got one: to paratrooper school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“I was 19. I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Pepper says.

Ben Pepper: in the Army.

After stops in North Carolina and Maryland, his 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment was sent to Northern Ireland, then Sherwood Forest in England.

Pepper would have been part of D-Day. But he had broken his back on an earlier jump, and was in a near-full body cast.

Many of his fellow paratroopers never made it home that June day.

He recuperated in time for another important, gruesome battle: The Bulge. But on Christmas Day, 1945, his flight to France crashed on takeoff. Everyone survived.

Instead he was driven to the Ardennes forest, between Belgium and Luxembourg.

“There was a lot of shooting,” he remembers.

A German shell hit the edge of his foxhole, but did not explode. Ten minutes later, a fellow soldier stood up in the same foxhole. A bullet killed him instantly.

Pepper got frostbite in the brutal cold — his rifle was frozen too — and earned a Purple Heart for it.

Ben Pepper’s Purple Heart, dog tag and other mementoes. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Soon, he was assigned to guard a former German schnapps factory. “We were 20-year-old kids, with all the booze you’d want,” he laughs.

After Pepper’s discharge in October 1945, he answered an ad to be a photographer. “Why not?” he figured.

That started a long career. In 1953 he opened his own studio — Allyn — on Atlantic Street in Stamford. By then he’d met and married Frances; their son David was 5.

Ben Pepper (center left) and fellow members of his photography school class.

Pepper also opened liquor stores, in Stamford and Norwalk. Frances started her own Kitty Closet shops on Westport Avenue in Norwalk.

In 1958 they bought property on what was then Blue Ribbon Farm, on North Avenue just past Cross Highway. They built a home on what is now Blue Ribbon Lane. He’s lived there ever since.

Ben Pepper, back in the day.

In 1960 the Peppers helped build Temple Israel on Coleytown Road. They spent the rest of their married life raising David (a Staples Class of 1966 graduate), traveling (including China before it opened to the West, the USSR, Africa and Asia), and working.

David and Gail have 2 children, both Staples graduates. They’ve given Pepper 3 great-grandchildren.

All would be proud to see “Private Benjamin” Pepper be honored at Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

He’s not so sure.

“My jacket wouldn’t fit,” he protests.

It would. Pepper is in great shape.

And Westporters of all ages would be inspired to salute him in it.

(Hat tip: Arlene Yolles)

28 responses to “Westport’s Private Benjamin

  1. Hope he comes.. it would be an honor to salute him

  2. I hope he can make it, too! I’d turn out just to see him. My father was born on July 26, 1923, but in Brooklyn, so they would have been contemporaries and both were in Europe at the same time, although in different parts of the military. My father was in the Signal Corps. Some of the photos he took of the liberation of Buchenwald are in the US Holocaust museum in Washington DC. People like this truly brought honor to our county with their service.

    • Claire shumofsky

      My father liberated Buchenwald as well. His description of the conditions there are in a letter to my mother which is now in the library of the museum of Jewish Heritage near the Battery in NYC.
      Claire Shumofsky former librarian at Coleytown Elemantary School now a VERY long time ago.

      • Claire, did you know my mom Harriette Hirsch – Ffld Woods Library?

        • Claire shumofsky

          Of course I did! I worked with her when I was studying for my MLS. she recommended Camp Cinqueka for my daughters Julie and Nina. I remember her very well.

        • Claire shumofsky

          I am not sure my comment was entered so will jsut repeat that we worked together for a long time. Camp Cinqueka for my daughters was her recommendation and they went for many years.

      • Hello, Claire!
        My mother (and her younger sister) graduated from Julia Richman High School in Manhattan in 1932, a competitive public school for girls, where the curriculum for secretarial studies students included music appreciation. 2 years of Spanish, and 4 years of English literature including a lot of poetry, a wonderful education.

        • Claire shumofsky

          So nice to see your name and read your reply. I hope you are well. My dear Allan passed away a few months ago and I am adjusting to my new status.

  3. The real heroes run silent, run deep.
    Thank you, Ben, for serving us all and for being you.

  4. David A. Browne

    We are indebted by your service and honored by your choice of Westport to raise your family Mr. Pepper. Thank you!

  5. Steven Rothenberg

    Thanks for this wonderful heart warming story

  6. Thank God for those wonderful human beings like Ben Pepper. We can only now imagine what the world would be like without them and their sacrifices. I am honered to know a bit of his story of his service to our country and community. His humility is so graceful and inspiring. Thank you for your service Mr. Pepper, live strong!

  7. Miryha Fantegrossi

    Thank you Dan for covering Poppy Ben’s story. My entire life I have been in awe of how humble Ben is about how much he has accomplished. I would be so thrilled to see him lead our Memorial Day parade!!! It would be the best gift our town can give to a man who has given us so much. (I’ve been best friends with Ben’s granddaughter Abby for 43 years). Miryha Fantegrossi, Staples class of 1997.

  8. I was blown away by reading this because, some months back, I was looking with my mom at my dad’s DeWitt Clinton yearbook from 1941 and wondering how many, if any, of my dad’s classmates might still be with us—and it turns out that one of them is alive and well right here in Westport!

    Incidentally, when I was really young, it seemed like practically the entire world had gone to DeWitt Clinton because my dad seemingly frequently ran into alums.

    I hope to see Ben in this year’s Memorial Day Parade. And thanks to his family for persuading Ben to share his story.

    • Hey Fred,
      You’ll find Bob Satter listed in your dad’s Clintonian. He was my hero.
      BTW the Bronx was great place to be from.
      Gil Ghitelman (Clinton ‘53)

      • Gil: my mom and dad were friends of the Satters (and Bob photographed my bar mitzvah portrait). I know my dad enjoyed growing up in the Bronx; like Ben he lived very close to the Grand Concourse. In fact, he grew up just down the street from Taft High School (which I believe opened while he was at Clinton).

  9. Dan, as usual, you did a great job of interviewing and writing about a local hero; I am so glad I instigated the whole project. I have long tried to get Ben to participate in the Memorial Day Parade but his modesty and humility has always prevailed. Maybe this year!

  10. Thanks Dan, this was totally fascinating.
    ADW Staples 1956

  11. Once again you’ve provided our town with a wonderful public service by shedding light on a true American hero Dan. Thank you. Mr. Pepper’s life is a great story waiting to be published.
    I sincerely hope he takes part in the parade so Westport can properly honor him

  12. Outstanding life story. A credit to the history of our country!

  13. Jennifer Jackson

    What an amazing story. Thanks Dan for sharing the story of Private Benjamin. I hope we’ll see him at our Memorial Day parade so we can all salute him for his service to our country.

  14. The Pepper family would like to thank Dan for spending time and listening to our Poppy Ben’s (as he is know to friends and family) life experiences. You have written an amazing tribute to this very quite and humble man.
    We would also like to thank Arlene Yolles for pushing us to get Private Benjamin known to the Westport community.
    A special thank you to the Westport community for your kind words and encouragement for him to be part of the Memorial Parade this year. Fingers crossed we can get him to do it!
    You all have made him feel like a celebrity!!! His comment was
    “Now everybody knows about me!”

    • To the Pepper family for sharing Ben Pepper’s experiences in war and his great personal life. As far as “everybody knows me” there are great individuals and families in this town who are the best examples of how more people should try and live their lives and Ben Pepper seems like he is near the top of that list. I am an everbody and thankful he is somebody! There are three top prizes in life, Family, Health and Happiness. Can’ t be bought and are priceless. Seems like Ben has earned all three. Hope to wave and meet him on Memorial Day!

  15. Great story, Dan! Ben’s son, Dave, was my classmate and friend at Staples. He was a fine quarter-miler on the track team and was an end on our ’63 JV football team. I had the pleasure of talking to him at our class’s 50th in 2016 but not about our dads. My father served with the 101st Airborne during WWII and experienced intense combat in Normandy, Holland and at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He died in 1991 but would have thoroughly appreciated Ben Pepper’s experiences. I hope Ben makes it to the parade! Tom Allen ’66

  16. Tess fantegrossi

    Poppy Ben is like the quiet river that runs deep! I’ve known him my entire life but only now am I hearing about some of these amazing stories. I’m so glad you honored him for he continues to be as strong and resilient as he was back in his 20’s on the battlefield. It would be incredible to see him honored at this years parade! Thanks for sharing this beautiful article!
    Tess Fantegrossi

  17. Great story about a great man! There was a Diane Pepper on North Maple Avenue Avenue in the 1950s. Was she a relative?

  18. Thank you Dan for taking the time to speak with my grandfather about his life. Poppy Ben (as we know him) is a humble man. Almost too humble to see the value and importance of his own life’s accomplishments. Being a veteran of WWII is a designation he does not often think of or get recognized for, probably because he has had such a full life post-WWII. He loved his wife Fran, whom he was married to for 70 years until her passing in 2018. They lived between Westport and Florida for many years. Traveled the world together and built a beautiful family in a beautiful town. I am so grateful to see him pushed into the spotlight. He truly is a treasure, not only to our family but also to Westport.

  19. I love this Dan! It’s important to honor such a great hero. We just finished watching “ Band of brothers” so understand a little better about what he must have gone through!
    Thanks for sharing such a lovely story!!

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